Chronicling the Rebuilding of the World Trade Center: A Conversation With the Artist Marcus Robinson

I recently met Marcus Robinson, an artist who hails from Belfast, Northern Ireland. For the last 11 years he has been documenting the rebuilding of the World Trade Center, not only through drawings and paintings, but also with Rebuilding the World Trade Center a documentary he made that was shown on the History Channel in 2014. A few weeks ago I went to his studio on the 66th floor of 4 WTC to find out more about his work on this project, and his art practice in general. Below are excerpts from our interview.

Artist and filmmaker Marcus Robinson working on his epic paintings of the World Trade Center construction in his studio (photo by Allan Tannenbaum/Polaris)

Liz Daly: I’m interested in your journey, first of all as an artist – where and how you learned to draw. I see you’ve got sketches, watercolors, lithographs…

Marcus Robinson: From my earliest age I knew I wanted to be an artist. And somehow I got bad teachers when I was at school who blocked that flow. So then I started trying to do photography as a replacement for painting. In my early days in Paris – I was there for 16 years – I worked as a photographer, although the desire to draw and paint was always there. It was actually my sister – she’s an amazing artist – she gave me an art lesson around 1999 that re-inspired me and got me going again. I worked with a very celebrated Irish painter, Martin Mooney, who taught me a lot about the technique of oil painting, in the tradition of plein air landscape painting.

When I lived in Paris, I used to have a little drawing book, and draw in cafes and at industrial scenes. And with large format cameras I would create things that very often looked like painting, by using torches (lights) with colored gels. I would do long night-time exposures where I would paint the edges of figures with light, using photography as a medium to try to do paintings.

Liz: Here at the WTC, what inspires you?

Marcus: The marks that are everywhere on the site, the little splashes of paint, or an area where someone will have written a series of figures and maybe someone will have drawn a face, a funny graffiti face on the site … the weird language of random marks and how random marks come together… anything I find like that I take photos of and they inspire me… bit by bit I have things I can include in some of these big paintings.

Liz: I get that, I take lots of photos of peeling paint on the subways…

Marcus: I love exactly that sort of thing – where nature and time and decay, and then – modernity – fluorescent spray paint and things like that – [how] the disintegration of different layers of activity incorporate themselves.

And then I have drawn from life a lot on the site. How can that act of drawing, and my experience filming on the site, and then my human experience of connecting with the men and women who are doing the rebuilding, come together and crystalize and be created into these bigger paintings? That’s an on-going, inspiring challenge that I’m working on.

Sketch of WTC rebuilding by Marcus Robinson

Liz: Let’s keep on that theme and talk about how all these layers came together when you decided to come here and document the rebuilding of the World Trade Center.

Marcus: I had been living in London and doing films about urban transformation, [including one] about the making of the London Eye. So when the events of 9/11 happened, I was already in the mindset of filming urban transformation, but from a positive and more spiritual point of view. I worked with some producers at the start who were based in London [but] it seemed like there was no way of getting funding… then, bit by bit, I took the reins myself, phoned Daniel Liebeskind’s office and spoke to his wife, Nina. She invited us over and we met with Daniel and her. She kindly opened some doors to people at the Port Authority and to Larry Silverstein. One of the key people I met is a guy called Dara McQuillan, who is the Chief Marketing Officer for Silverstein Properties.

It literally took me 4-1/2 years to find a way to film here, being continually told, ”You don’t know” or not being responded to…

Liz: And were you based in London?

Marcus: I was based in London, shuttling to and fro across the Atlantic, meeting people, going through a labyrinth…  and I had more or less given up, because I knew the site was starting to be rebuilt… I [went to] the south of France [to paint] when the phone rang, and it was Dara saying, “You won’t believe this, but the people have changed their mind, they’re going to let you start filming.” That was a miracle, so I beat it back up to London, got packed up and flew over with my cameras and literally within a week I was starting to film the bedrock.

Benediction, Marcus Robinson, oil on canvas (photo by Marcus Robinson)

And this painting, which is called Benediction, that’s the sort of scene I was greeted with, and that profoundly moved me: huge expanses of bedrock being laid bare, this idea that soul of New York City, this thing that defines the structure, this incredible substrata on which it’s built, this beautiful inner sanctum of the city being laid bare and reshaped to create this new building… And I was meeting these amazing guys on the site, who, I learned through time, were the descendants of many of the men and women and families who had built and shaped the skyline of New York City.

Liz: That’s a wonderful connection.

Marcus: There’s this spearhead of energy going through time, of different generations through the years. That was one of the key things I was inspired by on the site, that many of the men and women are connected to people whose great grandfathers maybe built the Empire State Building or the Chrysler Building and then whose fathers have maybe worked on the original Twin Towers. I talk about that quite a lot in the film, there’s a whole section about lineage and family and heritage.

It’s the idea of working people being at the cutting edge of shaping this city that everyone knows and everyone loves.

And I hope this work … that these paintings, long after I’m dead and gone, can define this sense of place and time, while also being timeless and incarnating something about the spirit of humanity, the spirit of people trying to pull through adversity, and… the diversity of New York City, which I think is amazing. That’s one of the things I think this site stands for, the beauty of people working together for a common goal, and the complete interdependence of everything.

Liz: Are you here by yourself, or is there a crew that came with you?

Marcus: By myself, it’s a solitary thing. That part of it is huge, and I’ve had to fund it mostly all the time myself – obviously some money from Channel 4(UK) and the History Channel, and an amazing contractor company called Roger & Sons, they helped keep the project going.

When it came to editing the film, I have an amazing editor, Leo Cullen who’s also a friend – he and two assistant editors. We have a story producer and an executive producer in London with a company called Lion Television.

Big Man in the Sky, Marcus Robinson, oil on canvas

Liz: Tell me about your engagement with the workers here – I would image that when you first showed up they were saying “Who is this guy?”

Marcus: It’s like everything – things take time. Partly it’s the dedication of an artist being there day after day after day: they see that you’re there with them, in all weathers, in all conditions, and you’re there at their coffee break, so there’s a sort of osmosis… and then I’m telling them why I’m here, what I want to do, what I believe in, so they get inspired that their work is being honored and reflected and celebrated by a third eye. Being aware that there’s a big arcing narrative… I think they got inspired by that.

Liz: Now as I understand it, you have something like a dozen cameras on site?

Marcus: I made a time-lapse film about Larnaca Airport in Cyprus being built. When that was finished I brought those 13 cameras here, and at one point I had them in different buildings around the site. Some of them had to be dismantled – I’d say I’ve had 5 or 6 cameras here for a long time. But most of the work that I was doing was with a 35mm film camera, that I would take down onto the site with me and film different things happening on a day-to-day basis. And then with a different camera, a video camera, I would film moments of live action and sound and people talking. So the final film is a mix of quite a lot of different ingredients: 35 mil film time lapse, then digital stills in locked off boxes that go through a period of years, then animated paintings, then interviews that we shot over a specific period of time with some of the guys who had become my friends through the years.

There’s a sort of overlap with all the things I love: drawing, painting, music, photography, filmmaking; [they] all came together in [this] one work. Within it there are lots of animated paintings that come to life, then dissolve into film frames that are all cut to the music. I really love the interplay between music, painting and film. (To see a bit of the film click here)

Liz: So you’ve been on the site now for about a dozen years?

Marcus: Since 2006, it’s coming up on 12 years now and before that, four and a half years of to-ing and fro-ing to develop the idea so it’s been quite a big adventure.

Liz: I think in many ways you’ve been incredibly lucky to be able to do this, to a large degree, on your own terms.

Marcus: This would have been a very different thing if at the start someone had said, “Here’s 5 million dollars make this film,” and defined what it would be. The fact that this is a journey, quite a difficult and challenging journey, means that the whole genesis and organic creation of this film has come from that place of being receptive and trying to learn as your edges are knocked off by the experience. I care about that as being a fundamental aspect.

Liz: And you’re planning to stay here until the end?

Marcus: Yes, I’d like to. Obviously it’s a huge challenge to keep the work funded. One of the things we’re doing now is looking for a patron, someone who’d like to have their name associated with this permanent, ongoing project, as well as having a permanent space in one of the buildings so there would be a living studio, a collection of work, and the film that would celebrate the rebuilding in a place where it could be shared with school children and other groups… that’s already what we do here at a small level, but I think as an on-going activity it could be amazing. We have school children and a lot of visitors from Ireland through the Northern Ireland Bureau and the British Council. Some of the UN Ambassadors have been up here ….

Liz: In addition to this project, what else are you doing?

Marcus: I’m about to shoot a film in Paris that’s an homage to a very famous Irish engineer, Peter Rice, who is the brains behind the Pompidou Center and the pyramid at the Louvre, and the Lloyds Building in London. He worked with some of the world’s top architects, translating their visionary ideas into engineering [support] structures. He’s very well known in the architectural world. I shot a trailer a couple of years ago and I’m shooting the film this summer. [If you’d like to see the trailer, click here – the password is RICE ]

Jardin des Tuileries, Marcus Robinson

I’m working on a number of different paintings – a series of the bridges of Paris.   And there’s a whole body of work I’d like to do inspired by Matisse’s last painting of the view from his window on the Quai St. Michel. So those are some of the plans for this summer. And then there’s a much bigger series of paintings and drawings on things that are inspiring about life in New York City. I do a lot of drawing at the Village Vanguard and at diners – I love New York diners, and because they’re disappearing, I’m trying to draw as many of them as I can… and the maritime life around New York… and the subway… I’ve proposed a film about the subway that I’d really like to make because I think the New York subway is brilliantly unique.

Sketch of the Landmark Diner by Marcus Robinson

Liz: How has your relationship to New York evolved – is it now home for you? Is anyplace home for you?

Marcus: New York really feels like home; I’ve always felt totally at peace here. I absolutely love New York City, I love the people and even the intensity and the madness and the occasional abrasiveness of the city, even sometimes feeling drained by the city. Whatever it is I just sort of thrive on it.

Sketch of Halsey and Stuyvesant Streets, by Marcus Robinson

My family home, the one we grew up in is still there, just outside Belfast, I still love it – that’s my original home. But I feel at home in many places: Paris, London, Ireland. I love Bed-Stuy Brooklyn, which is where I’m living at the moment. I absolutely love this beautiful mix of different people living together in this incredible area and the urban layout – the occasional moments of dilapidation and other moments of grandeur and a whole range of different people so that inspires me – I feel that that is the spirit of New York.

Liz: That’s the great thing about the subway – everyone rides it. That’s true of our parks and that’s also true of our beaches, like Coney Island.

Marcus: That’s what I was going to say – I’ve been starting a series of Coney Island drawings – I want to do this scale (large) painting because I think having an urban beach, a real city beach, where everybody is there – those combinations of populations you’ve just described – I love that – the different shapes, completely crazy shapes, sizes, colors of New Yorkers.

Sketch of the Village Vanguard by Marcus Robinson

Liz:   I’d like to flip it around and talk about music for two reasons: the first one is that when I came in you were playing the piano, so I’d like to know about your musical education; and secondly, you filmed Van Morrison, who I absolutely adore.

Marcus: I think that music is the most powerful art form in the sense that [when you’re] listening to music, [it] enters your soul and takes you to a place that no other art form can take you to. As a child, I learned classical piano – I started when I was 4… We always had music on in our house. My mother and father listened to Radio 3 which is the classical music station. My dad lived in Montreal from 1947 to 1958, so he had a really beautiful collection of old vinyl jazz records that I used to listen to as a child – he even had some 78rpm records… Then I played drums when I was at college and later got into what you call EDM (electronic dance music) but in the UK, it’s a wide ranging scene with all different types of music like deep house and neo-soul and hip hop… Some of the early films I made used those types of music, creating non-verbal films, where music and film worked together to tell a story.

And about the Van Morrison project, I was invited to make a film by Tourism Ireland – who had already been helpful in promoting my work – that would celebrate Belfast as a destination by filming Van Morrison’s 70th birthday concert on Cyprus Avenue. I shot a lot of the footage, time-lapse footage, we had fixed cameras which filmed the whole creation of the stage, the crowd arriving, and disappearing, and I filmed a lot with my 35 mil camera setting the scene, and other shots of the city of Belfast, and then we were very kindly allowed to use some footage that was shot by the BBC actually of his concert, so it’s a combination of those … The film is on Van’s site .

Liz: I understand you may have to move soon?

Marcus: Well these floors have been rented, so I need to find another location at the site. And if I can find a patron, I will be filming right until the end.

You can find more information about Marcus and his work on his website.

The Awakening, Marcus Robinson, oil on canvas, 8′ X 4′ (photo by Marcus Robinson)

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